Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘graduate school’

Advice for Grad School from AboutToBeDr

chemistry

This post is from an awesome amazing graduate student woman of color. She is successfully navigating graduate school, and is almost done with her thesis.  I asked her to share her wisdom for future, new, and current graduate students. Remember, you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button. You can also lead this blog by posting comments and your own posts, like this one. Enjoy!

Entering my first year of graduate school I knew that it was going to be different from my undergraduate experience, but I really had no idea what I was getting into.  There isn’t a “Graduate School 101” course to take to learn the ins and outs of this academic journey.  Here are 10 tips and wisdom that I have acquired going through my Ph.D. program.

  1. Forget about imposter syndrome.  This is better known as the “I am stupid and I do not deserve to be here” feeling. Many underrepresented minorities and women especially experience this feeling throughout their graduate school career.  Your admittance into the program was not by mistake.  You have earned where you are and though there are times where you will feel like you do not belong, just know that you do.
  2. Pick a supportive advisor. Picking an advisor is one of the most important decisions you will ever make in graduate school.  It really is a “match-making” experience.  They have expectations of you and you have expectation of them.  This person should care about your overall career goals and help you along the way to achieve them.  For example, my advisor understands my need for structured independence.  He empowers me to take control of my project and teaches the other graduate students  and me to be confident in our work.  I honestly believe I hit the jackpot in finding my advisor because we work well and understand each other. The relationship between advisor and advisee evolves along the way in graduate school.  So choose with your gut and if you feel like something is off with a particular person trust it.
  3. Surround yourself with mentor(s) from different fields of study. Your advisor can be your mentor, but should not be your only mentor.  I personally have about three mentors who help me with various situations.  For science and career advice I usually contact my undergraduate advisor.  For navigating life as a female of color, I have a former sociology professor I have known since I was 18.  You get the idea.  Each mentor knows different part of my life and they help me navigate my present dilemma or triumphs.
  4. Do well in your classes. Just because you have your Bachelors in whatever field you are going to graduate school for does not mean you are an expert.  Study!  Graduate school teaches you to think more in-depth about a subject.  It is an overall training to become a critical thinker.  College was about scratching the surface of your desired subject and graduate school will be a full immersion process.
  5. Be humble and open to new experiences. You will learn how to think and approach situations differently.  Learning is a collaborative process and with this collaboration, respect for others is essential.  In summary, do not be a “know-it-all” and shut people out.
  6. Take care of yourself. Take a break everyday to do something you love other than your studies.  Sometimes stepping away from something for even an hour can give you a new set of eyes the next time around.
  7. Every opportunity is a networking opportunity.  Talk to a faculty member or a student you do not know at a seminar or a department gathering.  Go to conferences and make it a goal to introduce yourself to someone prominent in your field.  You never know if that conversation would turn into an opportunity for future employment or collaboration.
  8. Be involved on your campus and/or in your department. Taking a leadership role in your department or on campus can be beneficial in your own social life personally and for your career.  Personally, if you are organizing gatherings for graduate students you will interact with people who are going through the same process as you.  This can be rather comforting and supportive during rough times.  Career-wise if you are organizing something like a departmental seminar series with other students you will interact with people in various fields and this could lead to future opportunities.
  9. Swallow your pride and ask for help.  I say this because I use to be the person that would try to learn at other people’s pace.  When I did not understand the material right away, I would be too embarrassed to ask questions and I would not learn it.  This was detrimental to my learning process and resulted in failing my first class in graduate school.  Ask as many questions as you can and do not be afraid to have meetings with professors outside of class to go over material.  Study groups with other students in your class are also very helpful.  Make a habit of swallowing your pride and admitting when you do not understand something.
  10. You are not alone. Graduate school is an emotional rollercoaster and more of an endurance race than anything.  The people before you and certainly after you will experience the same ups and downs.  Have a positive outlet or someone who will share in your achievements and your failures.

What do you think? Have other advise? Post or comment.

Response to Why Still So Few Women in Science

physicalscienceimageThis was not my planned post, which is some fantastic advise from an awesome minority woman graduate student. I will post that tomorrow. Instead I am going to do something I don’t usually do on this blog. I am going to rant a little. Usually I try to stay super positive, but today’s news on Women In Science needs a little response.

THE NEWS: If you are a woman in science, you were probably inundated with emails, Facebook posts, and tweets about today’s NYTs Magazine article “Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?”. I echo the sentiments I heard from other women that I am happy to see this is being tackled by the NYTs Magazine instead of only being discussed in women’s groups or women’s blogs. Don’t get me wrong, the blogs and groups are so important. As a blogger of one, I hope that the 12 people following are getting something from my posts, if not all of them (BTW, you can Follow this blog by clicking the +FOLLOW button). Another good one I found recently is TenureSheWrote which covers a lot of what we do here, and has better publicity. I have to figure out how to get this blog out to more people 🙂

Anyway, I had some comments about today’s article, and I would be interested to see what you say, too.

First, this whole thing just goes over the same old stuff in science. Was there anything new? Those of us who live this everyday don’t need to read this story, yet I was sent it many many times. Please stop sending it to me. Please find the most sexist jerk in your department and send it to them. Send it to your male chair, your dean, your colleague who thinks women have it easy because they get to organize more conferences when they are pre-tenure than post-tenure men. That was sarcastic.

Second, the story starts off with anecdotal story about a woman who left physics after being super awesome. (Women Rock!) She decides to go back to her undergraduate institution to see how things have gotten better. She assumes no women will show up for a women’s group, but the room is packed. They all sit around and share stories of sexism and negative attitudes towards women in science. The author and the chair of physics, also a woman, are stunned that things have not improved! What? Seriously? Did they really think everything was honky-dorey just because they have a female chair and a women’s conference each year? I was shocked that they would be shocked. Just a quick poll, comment to this post: Post if you have or have not experienced blatant discrimination about their desire to do science? (I have multiple times.)

Third, they reference the Big Bang Theory and discuss the women on the show. Yes, they are caricatures. Yes, they are funny. Yes, one woman is very stereotypically nerdy. Another one is cute, blonde, and wears dresses. Another character they seem to have forgotten is Leslie Winkle played by Sarah Gilbert. She was strong, smart, and could stand up to Sheldon or any of the other men of the show. I really loved her character. She kicked butt and totally rocked! Yet, they didn’t mention that she existed. They do say that women would rather be Penny, theactress, than the science women, but I don’t know if that is true. The blonde Bernadette is pulling in 6 figures out of her Ph.D. as an industrial scientist. I would want to be her or Leslie Winkle, myself. What do you think about BBT? Does it disuade women from going into science? Does it affect men at all? A little? Comment to this post.

On page 4 of 10 there was a discussion of the effects of Stereotype Threat without ever discussing the term “Stereotype Threat.” That is a disservice to people trying to find information about it. Also no mention of Imposture Syndrome. Interestingly, one of my best science women friends just mentioned today that even after getting tenure in HighPowerDepartment, she still suffers from this. She posted about it just today on Facebook.

There were some things I liked. I really liked this sentiment, buried on page 9 of 10:

The key to reform is persuading educators, researchers and administrators that broadening the pool of female scientists and making the culture more livable for them doesn’t lower standards. If society needs a certain number of scientists, Urry said, and you can look for those scientists only among the males of the population, you are going to have to go much farther toward the bottom of the barrel than if you also can search among the females in the population, especially the females who are at the top of their barrel.

Finally, the very end of the very last page 10/10 is the best. She talks to 4 current graduate students, and they have great advise for women young and old. You rock, women. (Plus, another good example that mentoring goes both ways.)

Four young women — one black, two white, one Asian by way of Australia — explained to me how they had made it so far when so many other women had given up.

“Oh, that’s easy,” one of them said. “We’re the women who don’t give a crap.”
Don’t give a crap about — ?

“What people expect us to do.”

“Or not do.”

“Or about men not taking you seriously because you dress like a girl. I figure if you’re not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that’s your problem.”

“Face it,” one of the women said, “grad school is a hazing for anyone, male or female. But if there are enough women in your class, you can help each other get through.”

“As my mother always taught me,” she said, “success is the best revenge.”

These were just a few of the thoughts I had as I read the very long article. I hope it wasn’t so long that people couldn’t get through it. That’s another issue. It has sparked some nice, interesting conversations, and I hope this blog is no different. Hope to read this and post comments. What do you have to say??

Beginning Grad School

Graduate School Blues

Graduate School Blues (Photo credit: ChiILLeica)

Fall is the time of new beginnings. For many that means starting at a new position such as grad school. This is a big transition. The following post is from a women who just started grad school. Enjoy!

My first week at the university where I was going to spend the next 4-6 years I went through what I would call “academic shock”. Now we all go through it whenever we change our level of education: elementary school to middle school to high school to college. Every time we are scared to death of change or the unknown and walk around with our eyes bugged out bigger than a Panic Pete Squeeze Doll. For some reason though I was sort of annoyed that I was being squeezed again at age 22 (and getting lost on campus countless times despite a map…). I remember telling my boyfriend (who is in graduate school already) that, “I’ve been through this, I’ve done the drill, why does it all feel new again and I feel so unprepared?” He smiled and said, “It’s different. You have no safety net like as an undergraduate. You typically don’t know anyone [like high school friends going to the same college] and this time there’s less people in your boat so you really do feel alone.” My first reaction was to make fun of how “good” at consoling he is but he really did have a valid point where it made me stop and think. When it came to the other “academic shocks” you did it with an entire class. My classes of 2009 and 2013 were all Panic Pete Dolls right along with me. This time there were only two other Ph.D. students in different rotating labs on different floors or in different buildings. Everyone I had met so far had been incredibly nice and open but they had their lives set where I was feebly trying to construct mine.

So you are probably wondering where the positive advice comes into all this right? It’s week three for me so I don’t have all the answers yet but I have found some basic things that I think anyone would say are good pointers.

  1. Over the summer try to get in contact with your professor you’d like to rotate with at least once. Ask to meet people who you will work with in the lab and if you can go over project ideas or if they recommend any papers relating to overall lab goals. Take a genuine interest in what you’re doing early and you tend to have a little bit of a sanctuary in your lab before you get there. I knew a few people before I actually started my semester so when I got a lab bench next to one of them I didn’t feel awkward talking to them or asking questions. Also if you hadn’t during your visit the first time to the school, be sure to try to ask people what classes they recommend and what helped them in their research.
  2. Read, read, read! I don’t mean once you get to your first week of school. I mean if you have a general idea of what you’ll be doing for research the first semester, read over the summer. Don’t go in blind, you are continuing your education for a reason and to be honest it’s not undergrad life anymore, it’s a job. I read two review papers and two research-related papers three weeks before school to get an idea of what the lab was like.
  3. Obviously be yourself. You are here for 4-6 years, they will find out eventually and there’s no point in trying to deal with the stress of a charade on top of all your other responsibilities. You are allowed to not know everything in your field and you are most definitely allowed to be as silly, serious, funny, awkward, charming or whatever quality you have to the uttermost you.
  4. If you have an interest, ask about it. I don’t mean about your field, you’ll have plenty of time to ask those questions too. I immediately began asking students and faculty about my three favorite topics: food, music, and hockey. Not only am I genuinely interested in these things, but then I can also get a feel for what other people have interests in. I have found so far no one in my department likes hockey, but hey, now I know not to invite certain people to those functions! Food and music are the best topics because not only are you finding out where to go but what kind of food people like and what music style. I like to think of it as “First Date” topics with your department. As soon as you find a mutual like you can do the awkward first date thing and ask for a second date… as in ask them to go with you to their favorite restaurant or get a group to check out some music that everyone seems to like. Don’t be Pepe Le Pew where you are throwing yourself at people without taking any social cues but what I’m basically getting at is welcome back to your freshmen year of college where you have to put an effort to make friends. If you are yourself and just casually ask people here and there to things you want to explore in the area I guarantee you will adjust very quickly.
  5. Other than it being mandatory (for most departments anyway), seminar is a great way to get to know your department and other research going on in your field or other fields. I know of at least three schools that have a lunch afterwards with the guest speaker and the other seminar attendees. Pay attention, take notes during the talk, and especially don’t be afraid to ask questions afterwards. I found so far that I am beginning to recognize faces and talking to more people in and out of my department after only three seminars.
  6. This is my last piece of advice but I find it most important above everything: Keep your sanity.

I see so many people not do this, and it’s very discouraging. Yes, graduate school is demanding and requires a lot of time, but balance is everything. Let me try to explain from an undergraduate perspective first. Before I went to graduate school, I was very lucky and had a boyfriend and a lot of friends already in graduate school. I was given plenty of advice from Masters and Ph.D. students and the most repeated thing I heard was, “Make time for you, because I didn’t and I wasn’t happy for most of my time here.” There was one girl I talked to at a friend’s party who is a very successful Ph.D. student but she literally looked like the soul was sucked out of her and wasn’t even happy that she was finishing up that year after 5 years. Balance is key to everything in life but especially when you are in graduate school. It is easy to get wrapped up in your research, take work home, pull late nights, and go into the lab on the weekend etc. Obviously there will be times when you have to do that and there is nothing wrong with that either; however, also be sure not to burn out. So my graduate student perspective is this. What I have been doing is that on Sundays I go grocery shopping and do my errands so that on Monday after my courses and lab work I go home and have a cooking session. It’s a destressor for the beginning of the week: put on some fun music and cook out a menu for the week. This is great too because lunch and dinner are all set so I know I’m eating healthy and keeping up my energy for the next 7 days. Also I am trying to have one thing to look forward to every week, whether it’s a 2-hour show at some dive bar on a Thursday or a farmer’s market/festival on a Saturday or even a corny/fun department gathering. I still allow time to go into the lab if needed late at night or on the weekend but I also have something of my own too. I know people who will do a bike ride or go fishing at least once a week. Having something that is not work related is as important as doing well in work. I remember a professor once said to me, “Work as hard during the week as you play during the weekend”. If you can do that, you shouldn’t fall behind in graduate school or lose yourself either.

Truth be told, we can prepare all we want but to be human is, well, human. You submerse yourself into a new environment, new people who already have routines, new learning experiences as you acquaint yourself with your research, etc. You put yourself in a completely new life and if you’re not scared, you are doing it wrong. The good news is that if you look at graduate school as a fluid, fun, learning experience where you work as hard as you play, you will enjoy all the ups and downs it brings.

Hope you liked that story and thanks to the WomanOfScience contributor for writing. Would you like to post some advise?

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